How Cereal Transformed American Culture

Christian fundamentalists invented cereal to promote a healthy lifestyle free of sin, says Ian Lender at Mental Floss. Instead, kids got tooth decay

Meat is murder (on the colon)During the early 19th century, most Americans subsisted on a diet of pork, whiskey, and coffee. It was hell on the bowels, and to many Christian fundamentalists, hell on the soul, too. They believed that constipation was God’s punishment for eating meat. The diet was also blamed for fueling lust and laziness. To rid America of these vices, religious zealots spearheaded the country’s first vegetarian movement. In 1863, one member of this group, Dr. James Jackson, invented Granula, America’s first ready-to-eat, grain-based breakfast product. Better known as cereal, Jackson’s rock-hard breakfast bricks offered consumers a sin-free meat alternative that aimed to clear both conscience and bowels. While Jackson’s innovation didn’t appeal to the masses, it did catch the attention of Dr. John Kellogg. A renowned surgeon and health guru, Kellogg had famously transformed the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan into one of America’s hottest retreats. Socialites from the Rockefellers to the Roosevelts flocked to “The San” to receive Kellogg’s unorthodox treatments. But shock-therapy sessions and machine-powered enemas weren’t the only items on the agenda. Kellogg also stressed such newfangled ideas as exercise and proper nutrition. It wasn’t long before he started serving bran biscuits similar to those of Dr. Jackson only now with the Kellogg name on them. To avoid a lawsuit, he changed the name of the cereal by one letter, dubbing it “Granola.” By 1889, The San was selling 2 tons of granola a week, despite the fact that it was barely edible. The success inspired Dr. Kellogg and his brother, W.K., to produce more-palatable fare. After six years of experimentation, a kitchen mishap by W.K. yielded the breakfast staple known as cereal flakes.

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Making red blood redderIn many ways, the cereal flake is an ideal consumer product. It’s easy to produce, easy to sell, and surprisingly lucrative. To this day, cereal comes with an eye-popping profit margin of 50 percent. These merits became clear to Charles Post, a failed suspender salesman who moved to Battle Creek in 1895. Post began selling knock-off versions of Kellogg’s products with a twist of his own advertising. At the time, advertising was associated with snake-oil salesmen and con artists. But Post, who had a background in sales, didn’t mind drizzling a little snake oil on his product. He published pamphlets with titles such as “The Road To Wellville” and claimed his cereal, Grape-Nuts, could cure appendicitis, improve one’s IQ, and even “make red blood redder.” By 1903, he was clearing $1 million a year. Across town, Dr. Kellogg refused to sully The San’s reputation with heathen advertising, and his profits suffered as a result. W.K., however, had no such qualms and set out to emulate Post. In his first national campaign, he told women to “Wink at your grocer, and see what you get.” (Answer: a free box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.) Within a year, he’d sold 1 million cases of cereal. With the leading cereal makers embracing such unabashed hucksterism, it was clear that cereal’s connection to its fundamentalist roots had come to an end.

Thinking outside the boxAll across America, the eyes of investors lit up with dollar signs, and would-be cereal barons descended on Battle Creek like locusts. By 1911, 107 brands of corn flakes were being made in Battle Creek alone.

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But the cereal business had one major drawback there was little substantive difference between brands. To stand out from the crowd, manufacturers realized that they had to focus more on the outside of the box than on what was inside. Some tried decorating their products with adjectives, creating names like University Brand Daintily Crisped Flaked Corn. Others competed to appear the healthiest. Tryabita, for example, was infused with celery flavor because, well, it sounded healthy.

But the real winner was a cereal called Force. Its mascot, Sunny Jim, was a strutting, top-hatted gentleman who became so popular in newspapers and magazines that other cereal makers rushed to create their own mascots. For a cereal called Elijah’s Manna, Charles Post even tried putting a picture of the prophet on the label. Although the product was eventually pulled, one industry ground rule had been established: Every box needs a character.

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Before long, cereal makers had an insatiable appetite for finding the right mascot, regardless of the cost. During the Depression, Post Toasties decided to use cartoon animals on its boxes and paid its cartoonist $1.5 million in the first year. That artist was Walt Disney, and he used the earnings to build the Disney empire.

The children are the futureCereal’s total reliance on advertising meant that it was essential for companies to keep up with new forms of media. Quaker Oats, for example, hitched its sales to the rise of radio in the 1920s by giving away more than 1 million radios as part of a promotion. Cereal companies were also quick to buy up radio stations and produce radio shows. For the most part, they churned out dramas and gossip shows aimed at housewives. But a radical shift in demographics came in 1936, thanks to a boy named Skippy. A Dennis the Menace type who frequently interrupted his adventures to extol the virtues of Wheaties, Skippy was the first cereal character directly marketed to children. As it turned out, kids ate him up, and cereal producers learned an important lesson: Children are suckers. The flood of kid-friendly, cereal-shilling characters that followed reads like a Who’s Who of American iconography, including the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy, and Buck Rogers. By the 1960s, cereal advertisers were devoting 90 percent of their budgets to reaching children.

SEE ALSO: Hewlett-Packard’s devastating $9 billion write-down: A guide[4]

In the process of targeting the young, cereal companies also realized that kids don’t care about their colons. They want sugar. Lots of sugar. In 1939, a Philadelphia heater salesman named Jim Rex created the first sugared cereal, called Ranger Joe Popped Wheat Honnies. Ironically, he designed the cereal to minimize the amount of sugar children consumed. He reasoned that if he lightly presweetened his product, kids wouldn’t add more sugar on top. He was wrong, and his good intentions were lost on bigger companies. After Ranger Joe sales skyrocketed, manufacturers started producing cereals such as Sugar Smacks, which contained a shocking 56 percent sugar.

How did cereal companies reconcile this with their original commitment to the health movement? Taking a page out of Post’s playbook, they declared that sugar wasn’t bad for you because it gave you the fuel you needed to start your day. With trusted radio personalities extolling the “energy-giving” virtues of cereal, impressionable kids and their frazzled parents rushed to stores.

SEE ALSO: CNN‘s ‘hormonal women voters’ article: 6 outraged reactions[5]

TV NationTelevision took advertising for sugar cereals to a new level, and the master of the new medium was an ad man named Leo Burnett. He invented TV programs specifically designed to entertain children and sell Kellogg’s products. Much like Skippy a decade before, Burnett’s characters would turn to the screen in the middle of a show and pitch the merits of a particular brand. There was nothing subtle about it. Howdy Doody, Roy Rogers, Andy Griffith, Rin Tin Tin, the Beverly Hillbillies, Yogi Bear, and Fred Flintstone all became television icons because they were good at selling cereal.

Also at Burnett’s urging, cereal companies invested heavily in early television technology. (They still do; cereal is the second-largest advertiser on television today, behind automobiles.) The financial backing let them shape the medium to suit their needs namely, adding color. Burnett was one of the earliest believers in motivational psychology and understood that colors appealed to kids and moms subliminally. When color TV became a reality, he persuaded Kellogg to use anthropomorphized cartoon animals as mascots. He thought animation would make for better, more colorful commercials. The first mascot they produced was Tony the Tiger, whose meteoric success was followed by hundreds of other cartoon icons.

SEE ALSO: Did Big Labor kill the Twinkie?[6]

Burnett’s advertising style was so effective that cereal sales continued to rise every year, unlike most products at the grocery store. After a while, parents and child psychologists became concerned that the ads were a little too effective. In the late 1960s, consumer advocates claimed that using cartoon characters to target children was overly manipulative, if not unethical. Eventually, in 1990, they forced Congress to pass a law banning TV characters from pitching directly to children in the middle of a show. Protective measures aside, cereal had strayed far from its wholesome origins. While Dr. Jackson’s dream of displacing pork chops from the breakfast table had become a reality, his cereal wasn’t what it used to be.

Bitten by the fangs of consumerism, Granula had transformed into Count Chocula in the course of a century.

SEE ALSO: The Penguin-Random House merger: 3 takeaways[7]

Ian Lender is the author of Alcoholica Esoterica[8]: A Collection of Useful and Useless Information As It Relates to the History and Consumption of All Manner of Booze

More from Mental Floss:

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References

  1. ^ SEE ALSO: American Apparel’s offensive Hurricane Sandy sale (theweek.com)
  2. ^ SEE ALSO: Everything you need to know about United’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner (theweek.com)
  3. ^ SEE ALSO: How Black Friday ate Thanksgiving: A brief history (theweek.com)
  4. ^ SEE ALSO: Hewlett-Packard’s devastating $9 billion write-down: A guide (theweek.com)
  5. ^ SEE ALSO: CNN’s ‘hormonal women voters’ article: 6 outraged reactions (theweek.com)
  6. ^ SEE ALSO: Did Big Labor kill the Twinkie? (theweek.com)
  7. ^ SEE ALSO: The Penguin-Random House merger: 3 takeaways (theweek.com)
  8. ^ Alcoholica Esoterica (www.amazon.com)
  9. ^ SEE ALSO: Will Papa John’s war on ObamaCare backfire? (theweek.com)
  10. ^ TheWeek.com (theweek.com)
  11. ^ 4 Free (secure.palmcoastd.com)
  12. ^ Like on Facebook (www.facebook.com)
  13. ^ Follow on Twitter (www.twitter.com)
  14. ^ Sign-up for Daily Newsletter (theweek.com)

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Resources:

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8 Responses to “How Cereal Transformed American Culture”

  1. How The Computer Is Supporting Us In Our Healthy Lifestyle? How do computer helps people in their healthy lifestyle? How can The computer help people? Is it from websites? advertisements? I need it really badly. How can the computer is supporting to improve our healthy lifestyle. in what ways? How can computer promote the quality of healthy lifestyle. How can computer convince people to stop unnecessary things like drugs or alcohol? How can computer HELP us?
    AT least 6-8 points would do. thank you.

    View Comment
    • HealthNut Reply

      The computer is not a healthy lifestyle for people. It programs us to thinking we can find everything on here. Jobs, pay bills, shop, everything! We can do that ourselves and it seems technology is taking the chores away from us, that can be easily done by human themself. The computer can help us though when we need to find information, imformation fast. Websites help us retain information, advertisements are just like commericals there just trying to sell or maniupulate us to buy whatever their advertising. The computer is not improving our healthy lifestyle. Peoples eyes can go out of sight and hurt very badly(like mine and i’m only 15 years old.) from years and years staring at the computer. The worst thing to stare at is a computer screen — I don’t know why I still do it for hours at end, but I do. The computer will never promote the quality of healthy lifestyle, its just not possible. The computer can convince people to stop drugs and alcohol but if you think about it would you rather have an obsession over the computer for hours at the day, you have to be near the computer you have to be on it then doing drugs or alcohol? The computer is just as bad addiction as alcohol and drugs. The computer cannot HELP us other then give us fast information when we need it. The computer although has so much information and so many untrusted sites you never know if what your reading is a lie. And I hope I get 10 points because I just wasted my time answering this long question, I hope you weren’t just asking this for the heck of this — I hope it was for some essay lol.

      Take care bye

      View Comment
  2. What Are Some Healthy Lifestyle Changes To Make? So I’ve started drinking more water. I drink Green, White, and Chai tea. I also bought the stainless steel water bottle, and I bike for about 20-30 minutes a day. I consider these healthy lifestyle changes. I was wondering if you could provide more suggestions along these lines.

    View Comment
    • HealthNut Reply

      There are 5 elements in a healthy lifestyle.

      1. food
      2. exercise
      3. sleep
      4. happiness
      5. extra healthy things

      1. Food, we don’t really know that much about nutrition, we do know a blanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is good for you. Meat is pretty good, if it is lean and not eaten too often….ideally I might eat meat once or twice a week. A good healthy diet can include some indulgences.
      2. Exercise, you should do some. Though I don’t recommend routine exercise, cycle 2 or 3 times a week, join a social sports club, eg, tennis, go hiking on weekends, swimming is one of the best exercises for the whole body. If you vary your exercise, then you will enjoy it more and do more.
      3. Sleep. A lot of evidence says if you don’t get enough sleep you will have problems, eat more, metabolise your food differently and die young.
      4. Be happy, enjoy your life. Drink dance, eat chocolate, but not all day, everyday.
      5. Then there are all the little extras. eg, green tea (there is no such things as Chai tea….chai means tea, it is an indian word derived from the chinese word Cha, meaning tea), red wine, brocollie and beetroot, lots of things than can boost your body, ginger, garlice and hundreds of other things that you can add to your diet to make things a little better.

      Don’t obsess, don’t live by a book or a routine, just be healthy.

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  3. How Will You Maintain A Healthy Lifestyle In The Future? Imagine yourself after college. You’re married with a few kids. You’re gaining a few pounds every now and then. How will you get yourself back on track into a healthy lifestyle?

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    • HealthNut Reply

      Minus the after college part, but I have 2 kids and am expecting the third one in a few weeks. We maintain healthy lifestyles by eating nutritious foods, lots of whole grains, fruits, veggies, and milk. We also get a lot of exercise in. Although my kids are still toddlers and I’m big as a house, everyday as a family my husband and I walk with the kids up and down the road, then when we get home my husband stays outside with the kids and plays with them while I get supper fixed. We don’t turn the TV on until after baths, forcing us to get up off the couch. Hopefully that will encourage our kids to maintain healthy lifestyles after they’re all grown up.

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  4. What Can Anyone Do To Promote A Healthy Lifestyle? What can institutions such as schools do and what can individuals do?
    What can the government put in place?
    What is the reason for the fact not a lot of people care about having a healthy lifestyle anymore?

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    • HealthNut Reply

      Schools can replace all or most of the canteen food with healthy options so they could replace chicken burger with tuna salad for example. Individuals can aim to eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day and exercise for at least 30 minutes a day. The government can put a higher price up on junk food, therefore tempting more people to buy healthy food as it would become cheaper than it is now.

      The reason why people don’t care about a healthy lifestyle, is that junk food like burger and chips is quick and a convenience, as healthy meals takes time to prepare. Same with exercise maybe being time consuming and they have a busy schedule to be able to fit it all in.

      View Comment
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